This is not hyperbole: With Mogu Modern Chinese Kitchen, Michael Wang aims to reinvent Chinese takeout for the future.
Mogu opened last week, in the same Farmingdale shopping center as Qdoba and PDQ Chicken. With its snappy signage and sumptuous rustic-industrial décor, Mogu looks every inch the national chain even though, for now, there’s exactly one location. Wang and his partners plan to open two dozen more on Long Island in the next three years.
If you look beyond the ordering counter into the kitchen you’ll notice that there is no fire, no smoke, no woks, no fryers. Instead there’s an industrial steam-injected convection oven on one wall; the other wall houses a phalanx of silent, computer-operated units, each the size of a filing cabinet, whose superhot nonstick cooking chambers mimic the action of stir-frying in a wok.
Wang was born in China and emigrated here with his parents when he was nine. He grew up in the kitchen of his parents’ Chinese takeout restaurant, Jen’s, first on Conklin Street in Farmingdale and then on Hicksville Road in Massapequa, where it still thrives. But going into the family business was never on the table. "My parents’ generation sacrificed, they worked 16 to 18 hours a day so that I could get an Ivy League education," he said. "For me to wind up in a restaurant kitchen would have meant they failed."
So Wang studied biology and sociology at Emory and then got a doctorate in nursing at Columbia. He practiced cardiology for five years but found himself drawn back to his parents’ business. Taking over the restaurant still wasn’t an option — for all his degrees, he lacked the skills — but it pained him that "when they retire, their legacy will disappear." And he was mourning not only the eventual passing of his parents’ business, but the whole category. "Mom-and-pop Chinese takeouts are as American as apple pie," he noted.
Wang laid out the challenges faced by the typical Chinese mom-and-pop. There’s the "language barrier" and "cultural isolation" felt by most operators; there’s the energy-inefficiency and physical challenge of cooking everything in screaming-hot oil in a heavy wok and, most of all, there’s a profound labor shortage. "Cooking in a wok requires tremendous skill," he explained. "With fewer people coming here from China, and very few children of Chinese immigrants interested in doing this — it’s increasingly difficult to find people who know how to cook this way."
In fact, many Chinese restaurateurs have abandoned the takeout business for culinary concepts that are more remunerative and don’t rely on wok-cooking skill — Asian fusion, sushi and, most recently, Cajun seafood. Wang took another route: He figured out a way to use technology to stand in for skilled labor. At the Newlab innovation incubator in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he and his mother, Jen Li, worked with MIT engineers to "study the science of wokking." Using computer imaging and stir-frying simulations, they came up with an "automatic wok-cooking platform" (SAM: "Smart Automatic Master Chef") whose blade mimics the flipping action of an expertly wielded wok and whose superheated surface can sense the ingredients as they cook. Each dish has its own algorithm and "cooks" need only add the requisite ingredients (which are precut and apportioned in another Mogu facility) and SAM does the rest.
The results look like Chinese takeout and taste like Chinese takeout, though with a marked lack of oil and goo. Most surprisingly, the food evinces a real wok-hay, that char-kissed savor that is the hallmark of wok-cooked food. I sampled the sauteed string beans with seared tofu; "farm-fresh sauté," with big, tasty shrimp and crisp-tender vegetables; the "king & steak," tender hunks of flank steak with meaty king oyster mushrooms; "hi mein" noodles with roast pork and vegetables; and dry-rub ribs, which admittedly lacked the chew of traditional spare ribs. But the "king egg roll," "air-fried" in the convection oven and filled with king oyster mushrooms and leeks, was probably the best egg roll I have ever eaten.
Unlike the traditional Chinese takeout, Mogu’s menu consists of about two dozen dishes, but you’ll find all your favorites: wonton soup, dumplings, scallion pancakes, chicken with broccoli, kung "wow" chicken, pepper steak, etc. Most appetizers and soups are between $4 and $9; mains from $8 to $11.
Wang has two partners in the venture: his mother, in whose Massapequa restaurant kitchen the recipes were beta-tested, and Pat Spates, co-owner of SeaQua Deli in Massapequa, St. James and Patchogue. Wang worked at SeaQua in Massapequa as a kid, and he never forgot "the order, the precision, the protocol" that Spates insisted on. The two ran into each other a few years ago, and now Spates has a second career as a Chinese restaurateur.
I asked Jen Li if she was disappointed that her son was running a Chinese restaurant. "No," she said, "I am very proud."
Mogu is at 1006 Broadhollow Rd., Farmingdale, 631-257-3831, moguchinese.com